I believe I've figured out something about life. It only took forty-eight years, two marriages, three kids and a sober head to get me here, but I think what I'm finally getting is that life, as it turns out, is not McDonald's; you don't get to have it your way. In fact, the more force you exert on life to have things turn out just the way you want, the less likely the chances are of that happening. It's like life is constantly playing a reverse psychology trick on us all.
I have two pieces of evidence to back up this theory: a handwritten note and pancakes.
On Christmas morning, after all the present-opening hubbub had finished and everyone was gravitating to the kitchen to eat again, my son, Sam, quietly walked up to me and handed me a note. Written on a plain white piece of paper, folded twice, it said this: "Without you I don't know where I would be. You have been my guiding light...you have helped me back onto my feet countless times and taught me what is truly important in life. You are my role model and I have/will always look up to you."
It was the best, bar none, Christmas gift I have ever received.
Sam is 18 years old, graduating from high school in a few months and moving to Wyoming for an internship with a ski film production house. And he's huge, he towers over me now. He's passionate about skiing and filmmaking, funny as hell, loyal, and like every 18-year-old male who has gone before him, not big on words. The card was a total surprise; a first. No one told him to sit down and write something nice for his mom for Christmas. It came from a place of self-motivation and love, and after I read it I knew something had gone incredibly right in our lives. That despite two divorces and countless hours on the road, traveling between homes, despite all the upheaval and change, despite the fact that we have never been a picture of The All-American Family, Sam has turned out to be a decent, present, reflective, kind-hearted, very cool young man. He is not bitter or angry or failing out of school or spending his weekends sucking smoke from a hookah. He's turning out to be what I hoped for all along: a really good guy.
I have learned, along the rocky road of parenting, not to push my agenda. It has never been my intention to work out all my own issues through the lives of my kids. I gave Sam a wide berth, with a side of loving support and firm guidance in the hopes that he would become what he came here to be: Sam. I didn't need him to be a new and improved version of me. Good God, the last thing the world needs is another one of me. I figured out early on that these kids of mine arrived into this world with a tiny seed of a plan nestled in their souls, and that the best gift I could give them is to get the heck out of their way so they could bloom.
I would say, though we're not entirely out of the woods yet, that it's working.
As for pancakes...
Shortly before Christmas I walked into the room of an oncology patient and saw the pile of hair on the floor beside her bed. Our conversation revealed what my gut told me upon first glance: cancer was taking life from her and at a breakneck pace. In talking we found common ground in the story of raising teenage boys. She told me about pancakes.
In their home, their family has pancakes every Sunday morning. Without fail. And she has always been the chef, until recently when the unwanted visitor to her body left her too weak to cook. But on the Sunday when she was admitted to the hospital, she told me, he older son, 17, had risen early and made the pancake breakfast for the family by himself. "He knew his younger brother was counting on it...he didn't do it the way I would have done it," she said with a smile, "and it was really hard for me to not take over, but he did it his way and they were good. They were good."
For that beautiful mom, life is forcing her to let go; cancer is teaching her that the pancakes will taste delicious no matter how they are prepared, when they are offered by the loving hands of a son. It has taken me a long time to learn how to stop forcing my will on everyone and everything around me; to stand before the truth that life is not ours for the molding, that it's ours for the receiving. Our biggest task, our highest calling, is, as Richard Rohr would say, "simply being in pure and naked Presence." To get out of the way so that life has the time and space to reveal itself in all its splendor.
Who would have thought that teenage boys were here to teach us this lesson? Certainly not I, and therein lies the magic.